State lawmakers will propose legislation challenging federal protections for monk seals if the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration doesn’t scale back its proposals, according to state Rep. Sharon Har.

Har’s remarks Monday evening were met with a round of applause from a room in downtown Honolulu packed with Hawaii fishermen. She spoke during public testimony on a proposed expansion of protections for the endangered monk seal population.

Har said she was also speaking on behalf of Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz and Rep. Jerry Chang, who chair committees on water, land and housing.

The crux of the controversy involves the transfer of up to 60 pups from the northwest Hawaiian Islands to the main Hawaiian Islands in the hope of increasing survival rates.

NOAA’s National Marines Fisheries Service has worked for decades to protect the monk seal population. In the past 10 years, the population has declined from an estimated total of 1,200 to 900 seals in the northwest Hawaiian Islands.

The National Marines Fisheries Service’s proposal to transfer up to 60 pups to the main Hawaiian Islands has sparked anger among local fishermen who complain that the monk seals threaten their catch, are aggressive and a threat to human safety.

The federal proposals come at a time when NOAA has also proposed expanding the critical habitat designation of the monk seals to include not just the northwest Hawaiian Islands, but also the main Hawaiian Islands – which has also ignited anger among fishermen concerned that the designation will curtail their ability to fish.

NOAA officials have said that any impact on local fishing from the critical habitat designation would likely be negligible. They also say that the transfer of young monk seals to the main Hawaiian Islands will have little if any impact on fishing operations.

NOAA representatives said that the transfer could substantially assist a monk seal population that has fallen to dangerously low levels. The seals would be raised in the main Hawaiian Islands until the age of three, before being transferred back to the northwest Hawaiian Islands. Scientists believe this could help their survival rates. Currently, 40 percent of monk seals don’t make it to adulthood in the remote island chain, but in the main Hawaiian Islands where there are less sharks, their survival rates are better.

But fishermen that showed up for the public hearing weren’t swayed, nor were they all sympathetic to the plight of the seals.

“I hear seals are a top predator, but humans are the top of the food chain,” testified one local fisherman. “Some things, in my opinion, nature makes go extinct for a reason. As hard as it is to understand that, it’s part of life.”

Har testified that there needed to be a balance between all interested parties when deciding on monk seal protections and that if there wasn’t the Legislature would try to step in.

“We do remind you that we are the legislative branch and we are responsible for public policy to take care of the greater good of all of the people in Hawaii,” she said.

The public comment period is for a proposed renewal of NOAA’s permit to continue its research and enhancement program, according to Jeff Walters, a Hawaiian monk seal coordinator for NOAA. The current permit runs out in 2014. If it is not renewed then the program, which has had a budget of about $14 million over the past three years, will come to an end.

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